For a few seconds there, it really seemed like USA Network's The Sinner would be a one-season-and-done miniseries about the disturbing murder investigation into Cora Tannetti (star-turned-executive producer Jessica Biel). Then it was renewed for a second season, which would let Cora go in favor of of a brand new “whydunit” for returning detective Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman) to piece together, as the mechanics of the series have been nicknamed. You know, since it's obvious who the killer is, but their motives are impossible, and inevitably horrifying, to figure out. This year’s mystery trades in the mild-manned optics of Cora, a suburban mom who became a killer, for Julian (Elisha Henig), a creepy-but-troubled-seeming 13-year-old who also became a killer.
While The Sinner 2.0, premiering August 1, isn’t imbued with the same form of psychosexual horror as its freshman year — and, frankly, thank the TV gods, considering the young boy at the center of the proceedings — the USA thrill ride is just as addictive as it was last year. In fact, it might be even more overwhelmingly obsession-worthy, as the 2018 Sinner jumps right on pop culture’s current cult bandwagon thanks to the addition of Leftovers and Avengers: Infinity War alum Carrie Coon as the mysterious Vera Walker.
Once you get into the new version of The Sinner, it’ll be impossible to look away.
This year, the drama picks up as an unknown couple (Adam David Thompson and Ellen Adair), is trying to drive their son to Niagara Falls and failing. Eventually they have to pull into a motel (nothing good has ever happened in a TV motel). Because Julian is their son, and everyone watching premiere “Part I” knows someone has to die, it’s obvious these two are not long for this world. What isn’t obvious is the haunting way the pair is killed or the bizarre way their bodies are arranged. These details, which deserve to be a surprise for the viewers, are the first time we’re reminded The Sinner season 2 aims to be as viscerally shocking and memorable as the first one.
The only true difference between watching seasons 1 and 2 is that this year, for once, you’re almost allowed to trust what you see on screen. So much of season 1 was dedicated to unraveling Cora’s memories, which were shattered by a wide-ranging scheme to ruin her entire self understanding. Kidnapping, blunt force trauma, forced heroin addiction, and creepy as hell ski masks were all employed to purposefully make Cora an unreliable narrator. The Belmonts' plan worked, as we eventually learned Cora’s memories were filled with disjointed, incorrect, swapped out people, places, and things.
Julian doesn’t present such issues, since he doesn’t suffer from the same trauma as Cora. Instead, we’re aware of the fact that the 13-year-old is purposefully hiding secrets he knows very well. Even the scary moments that should be considered dreamlike disturbances are suggested to be literal. So, the trick of the matter is getting Julian to start spilling all the details he’s withholding. One of those moments comes at the very end of debut “Part I,” and it is chilling. Hyperventilating, growling, and general demonic sounds are involved, and viewers are left wondering what’s wrong with the boy. Is he suffering from some physical or mental problem? Is he simply evil? Is this the terrifying way the cult he’s affiliated with taught him to handle panic attacks?
While the enigma that is a murderous tweenager like Julian is enough to bolster a full season of The Sinner, the addition of a Vera’s cult, which isn’t explored until the second episode, certainly makes the new run all the more tantalizing. It seems obvious the minds behind the drama know it will have a second, very powerful life on Netflix, where the key to success is ending an episode on a twist so juicy, it’s impossible not to press “play next episode.” Out of the three installments made available for review, each one had a final few seconds more unbelievable than the previous episode’s. They make the mystery of Julian and Vera’s cult all the more creepy and fearsome.
A word to the wise: expect the unexpected flash of gore.
Speaking of flashes, season 2 also reveals quite a few tiny glimpses into the past of detective Ambrose, The Sinner’s connective tissue between this year and last. Season 1 slowly revealed Ambrose suffered from a mysterious dark history, the kind that created a kinship between him and Cora. This year, we truly start to delve into that backstory, and the entire reveal is just as eerie as everything else in The Sinner world. Like Cora and Julian, all of Harry’s trauma stems from a troubling childhood home life. Unlike Cora and Julian, as trailers tease, a massive fire plays heavily into that history. It's up to viewers to figure out if that blaze is metaphorical or literal.
Cora might be gone, but the creeps you’ll get from Ambrose, Vera, and Julian will more than sustain your summer Sinner obsession.
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